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Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

As a result of watching the recent presidential debates I’ve had the opportunity to catch glances of local broadcast news. I don’t watch a lot of tv and certainly not the news because in the past I found it to be shallow, superficial in its coverage, and slanted deep into sensationalism. These recent glances have reconfirmed my views and I now believe news exists purely as an instrument of fear mongering.

To what end, what purpose is all this fear sold to us as information that we feel compelled to need?

Fear, I’ve decided, is our national drug, our soma, one that once consumed requires a steady diet. Politicians dispense with rational and honest discourse in favor of getting votes by pushing fear like drug dealers earning loyalty – and dependency – by giving it away freely. The media redistributes this fear-drug after cutting it with good old-fashioned advertising hucksterism, knowing the consumer won’t consider the harmful side effects and decay to their ability to reason because they’ve become dependent on it. Thus the constant need for greater amounts of fear just to feel sated.

Enter dystopia.

The Science Fiction genre has a long tradition of discussing our current problems by masking them in constructed worlds similar to our own but distant enough not to cause us anxiety. They feed our strange human desires to explore new worlds, engage with the possibilities of life beyond our solar system, and through various proxies shine a light on our very human condition. They are cautionary, sometimes moral, tales with the promise of salvation or a warning of ruination as a matter of choice.

With kids constantly fed a steady diet of fear – on tv, in politics, in classrooms, anywhere it can be pedaled in favor of the ability to think for oneself – it shouldn’t be a surprise that they have grown to expect a dire future as entertainment. The ultimate message may be one of the human spirit triumphant over forces of darkness-to-come but rarely does it extend beyond the narrative hero. It is the flaw of hero-worship, this notion that one person may triumph in the end with the assumption that all will be right with the world from that point out. Revolution and change are rarely the carefully orchestrated desires of one individual motivating the masses, they are the will of the masses unified to rise up against the individual for the good of all.

The dystopic vision doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it isn’t the will of one person forced down on all, it is a collective agreement and a surrendering of free will and free thought that allows for the worst to happen. Over time, and with a steady diet of dark futures without workable solutions provided as road maps, dystopia as entertainment may condition readers to readily accept these worlds as eventualities. Fear re-conditions the mind to accept being afraid as a standard state of affairs, thus requiring a constant feed of fear in order to feel normal.

It took decades before people broke free of the fear and political inevitability of a nuclear Cold War. As entertaining as dystopic fiction can be, I hope it isn’t decades before readers (and writers) snap out of the coma of fear and seek out the roots of new stories that honor rational thought and honest discourse, and that politicians and the media lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Or, to bastardize Vonnegut: Tomorrow becomes the illusion we choose to believe, so we must take care in the illusions we choose to believe.

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Our national cinema, when we need to show that something is important, that will rock us deep to the core, we always go for the presidential seal. Once things get all the way up the chain to the Commander-in-Chief you know that’s where the buck is going to stop. But what does it mean to have the highest office in the land (well, here in the ol’ US of A that is) used so freely in our national storytelling?

Recently while watching the movie Air Force One I couldn’t stop wondering what the founding fathers would have made of Harrison Ford’s portrayal as president James Marshall. Would a bunch of dudes who were so eager to create a new form of government where no one branch would be more in control than another have appreciated this portrayal of the head of state as a man of action, able to single-handedly defeats terrorists on board, fly the plane itself for a bit, and then perform a dramatic escape in air via zip line to another plane? The events themselves are patently absurd – if we had a presidential candidate that buff I’m guessing the election would have been decided in an epic arm wrestling match. But leaving aside those improbabilities, why was it important to make fictional American president the hero?

When you look at the history of actors who have played fictional presidents it seems like there was a hands-off policy at either portraying or making fun of the office until after Nixon. There are a couple portrayals in the 30s (including the most bizarre Gabriel Over the White House in which divine intervention converts a fat cat into a benevolent fascist with a little help from god) and a few more in the 60s (Dr Strangelove) but seriously, after Nixon, the gloves are off and the president transitions from wimpy buffoon (Being There, Escape From New York) to in-your-face catchphrase-spouting dudes (Air Force One, Independence Day) to everything in between (Dave, Americathon).

Is the United States the only nation that does this, that creates fictional versions of its top official for entertainment purposes? Occasionally, yes, an international spy thriller will need various heads of state to give the nod or order the plot further into motion, but are their European movies whose leaders are taking names and busting heads of CIA task forces who dare threaten them?

And at the very least, what could the rest of the world make of so much Hollywood product dedicated to projecting our elected officials as heroic stoics or power-mad? Once you compare these cardboard toughs with the actual candidates running for office in any election year the disconnect is so great that it wouldn’t be hard for outsiders to assume American citizens are clueless to their own delusions. We want Arnold Schwartzenegger, or at the very least Morgan Freeman, but in the end would settle for Tom Hanks.

In the end I don’t think it does us any good to focus so much time and energy on this idea of a president being as integral to our entertainment as they are to running the country. In fact, I would rather our politicians quit trying to manage their images in appearing “presidential” and instead focus a little more on the real heroics of making things work.

I don’t imagine Hollywood would make a movie of that. Not enough ass-kicking going on.

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First it came to me as a tweet, that a bizarre story with unanswerable context questions appeared on a New York State exam. The news story, which gave a summary of the story on the test, concerned a retelling of the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, only with a Pineapple in the place of the tortoise. The Pineapple, who can talk but is immobile, naturally loses the race but is eaten by the other animals. The questions that followed, supplied by the news story made no sense. Even teachers administering the exam couldn’t decisively say which were the correct answers.

And as teachers were going to be assessed on the ability of their students to do well on this test it seemed a travesty.

Another tweet alerted me to the fact that the story was written by noted children’s author Daniel Pinkwater. A different story came into focus with just that information, because I’ve read enough Pinkwater to know that he prizes nonsense and zen equally in his stories. But I was still confused. How did a nonsense story end up on a test to measure reading comprehension? It sounded like another one of those areas where a test seemed more designed to promote failure than measure success. I poked around and found both an interview with Pinkwater along with a copy of the actual story as it appeared on the test.

Pinkwater himself finds the entire incident absurd and makes his pointed jabs at the testing industry clear. What struck me was the story of “The Hare and the Pineapple” (originally “The Hare and the Eggplant”) was taken out of context in such a way that, as a stand-alone piece, it seems practically designed to cause test taker anxiety. The fable in the book is told by an elderly man who is either going through early stages of dementia or at least pretending to be, so within that context the “meaning” of the story is, essentially, there is no meaning to the story. In reading the story as it appeared on the test, and looking at the questions, it becomes clear that the controversy as reported in the news was carefully written to highlight the absurdity of the test. There is one question I found that asks for a value or contextual judgment (“who was wisest”) but in the end it may simply have been that an absurd story in the middle of a “serious” test caused some eighth graders undue anxiety.

Still, the problem of context bothers me. When you take something with a very specific purpose in one text and remove it from its surrounding purpose, it opens up the possibility of misuse and misunderstanding.

In Paul Zindel’s YA novel The Pigman there is a story told by the old man as a “mystery” though he suggests that the story will reveal what kind of a person you are. If I’m not mistaken the story is an adaptation of a version playwright Edward Albee based on a Greek tale.

There is a river with a bridge over it, and a WIFE and her HUSBAND live in a house on one side. The WIFE has a LOVER who lives on the other side of the river, and the only way to get from one side of the river to the other is to walk across the bridge or to ask the BOATMAN to take you.

One day the HUSBAND tells his WIFE that he has to be gone all night to handle some business in a faraway town. The WIFE pleads with him to take her with him because she knows if she doesn’t, she will be unfaithful to him. The HUSBAND absolutely refuses to take her because she will only be in the way of his important business.

So the HUSBAND goes alone. When he is gone, the WIFE goes over to the bridge and stays with her LOVER. The night passes, and dawn is almost up when the WIFE leaves because she must get back to her own home before her HUSBAND returns. She starts to cross the bridge but sees an ASSASSIN waiting for her on the other side, and she knows if she tries to cross, he will murder her. In terror, she runs up the side of the river and asks the BOATMAN to take her across the river, but he wants fifty cents. She has no money, so he refuses to take her.

The WIFE runs back to the LOVER’s house and explains to him what the predicament is and asks him for fifty cents to pay the BOATMAN. The LOVER refuses, telling her it’s her own fault for getting into the situation. As dawn comes up, the WIFE is nearly out of her mind and dashes across the bridge. When she comes face to face with the ASSASSIN, he takes a large knife and stabs her until she is dead.

Now, on a piece of paper (or in your head), list the names of the characters in the order in which you think they were most responsible for the WIFE’s death. Just list WIFE, HUSBAND, LOVER, BOATMAN, and ASSASSIN in the order you think they are the most guilty.

The order of your answer supposedly reveals how much you value LOVE, SEX, FUN, MONEY, and MAGIC with each corresponding to the characters in the story and their behavior. And within the story there is a reason for The Pigman to be telling it, but let’s take the story on its own and instead of making an ordered list of who we think is most guilty, lets instead ask some contextual inference questions.

Based on the story above, which person is most likely to have hired the ASSASSIN?
a. the BOATMAN
b. the LOVER
c. the HUSBAND
d. the WIFE

Who does the WIFE fear the most in story?
a. the ASSASSIN
b. the HUSBAND
c. herself
d. the BOATMAN

What could the WIFE have done differently to avoid being killed?
a. Swim across the river.
b. Offered the BOATMAN double his fee for helping her.
c. Kill the ASSASSIN before he could kill her.
d. Found another way across the river.

The first question underscores a crucial bit of information that isn’t expressly given in the story, because we all know that an Assassin never kills for free. In the second question the Wife has reason to fear all of the people named in the answers, but which does she fear the most based on her behavior? The third question merely asks that the test taker choose what to their thinking is the best solution. These questions are sometimes kept out of the scoring and sometimes used to gather some other particular metrics requested by the test administrators or the company that produced the tests themselves. But as you can see, it’s easy to ask the questions, but much harder defending definitive answers when the story itself has another purpose within the larger context.

Now comes the blame game. Judging from all the news and hoopla regarding “The Hare and the Pineapple,” who do you think is the most at fault?

a. The news media for reporting the story.
b. The schools who administer tests with questions even their own teachers cannot answer.
c. The test preparers who make millions off selling tests to school districts even though the tests themselves may not provide the quantitative information they claim to possess.
d. The public, who believe that standardized testing is the best way to measure everything from individual knowledge to the ability of a school and its educators to provide quality education.

When you are done, put down your pencils, wait quietly and do not turn the page until you are told to do so.

(By the way, if you want to provide your answers to The Pigman’s riddle below I will email you what the results mean.)

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Betsy Bird, children’s librarian extraordinaire, can always be counted on for new and interesting leads (and ledes) when it comes to what’s going on in kidlitland. Yesterday (though I’m just catching it now) she opened with the arrival of a new picture book manifesto organized by Mac Barnett and signed by a collection of contemporary picture book authors and illustrators. You may choose to click on the image to enbiggen, or view it directly at its own piece of real estate on the internet at http://www.thepicturebook.co/

On the one hand, it’s always interesting when a group of like-minded people get together and make such a public proclamation because within their statements we find much, much deeper issues. On the other hand (or the back hand if you will) sometimes when like-minded people get together they don’t have enough distance or perspective to see their world as an outsider does. This dichotomy, partially represented in this manifesto, raises some interesting points about the picture book as it exists today.

As the opening salvo, being tired of hearing that the picture book is dying, and at the same time tired of pretending it isn’t, the manifesto acknowledges its own pushmi-pullyu stance. The undersigned are willing to admit to a certain amount of laziness among their ranks provided other guilty parties accept their share of the blame. But who, exactly, are the other parties in this affair? Picture book authors, naturally, but I don’t think they are entirely at fault here. Though not named, a closer reading hints that editors, parents and book reviewers might need to step up and take some responsibility as well.

Here are some points in the proclamation that caught my eye.

We need a more robust criticism to keep us original.

As a reviewer of books for children and young adults the attitude that bothers me most is this notion that we shouldn’t be critical of these books, that we should be positive. Better, I’ve been told, to say nothing at all than to give a book a negative review. After all, not every book is for every reader, and simply because the book doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean it wouldn’t find a warm, loving home elsewhere. But the point of a negative review, done correctly, both expresses the reviewer’s opinion and suggests key points that failed that particular reviewer. Just yesterday I wrote two negative reviews for the other blog (to appear in coming days), one a novel in verse that just didn’t hold my attention enough for me to want to finish, and a picture book that felt both derivative and brought up, for me, a little-discussed troubling subject about the point and purpose of zoos. I’m not holding myself up as a paragon of reviewing (though if someone else wanted to I’d be flattered) but if, as the picture book manifesto states, we want to see more original works from the authors of books for children we need to keep the criticism robust, and that means it can’t all be sunshine and rainbow-excreting unicorns.

What this point touches on also is something perhaps not widely understood outside of art schools and MFA programs, and that’s the rigor of peer criticism that challenges and pushes writer and artist alike into new territory. As a student no one likes hearing that their story sounds exactly like that already published (yet unknown to the budding writer) or that their photographic subject has already been done, and more effectively, by another before them. But without these the apprentice does not push further, and this becomes more important once they have moved into journeyman and mastery where their work becomes more solitary. If the voices of criticism soften with time then so does the artist, to the point of repetition and safety.

The tidy ending is often dishonest.

This is interesting because often the tidiest endings are simply happy ones. And honest endings can be difficult to come by without either heavy moralizing or a heavy hand at message. The tidy ending exists because the tidy ending is easy. So here we hear a song of the messy ending, the honest ending that forces parents and other adults into the difficult position of actually having to have an open and direct conversation with their young charges. True, the adults can choose to tidy up the endings themselves and gloss over the unpleasantries, but doing so is equally beneficial as it teaches children who they can trust and when. Somewhere along the way a child’s BS sensor becomes activated through external forces – a toy that doesn’t perform as advertised, an adult who wiggles out of a promise through a technicality of language – and when it happens with books (and the adults that choose, or read to, them) the damage is done. I’ve seen enough anecdotal parent-child behavior to know that the adult who prefers to present a tidy world to children is surprised later to find a child who dislikes reading because it isn’t honest… or a child who distrusts and holds no respect for adults who don’t trust or respect them enough to be honest.

We should know our history.

This is true of all things, and I can’t help but feel this is a sideways swipe at editors and publishers, but I can see how this applies to picture book illustrators in particular. It was true thirty years ago (really? thirty?) when I was in art school and I’ve seen evidence of it recently; many an illustration major enters school without the slightest conception of working on picture books, discovers this new avenue of post-graduate revenue, and produces a book or two as final portfolio without having really studied the field. In the same way that a lot of contemporary film directors seem to not have seen any movies older than decade back, many picture books appear to be variations on a theme written by tone-deaf composers. It takes more than a cute, cartoony, or retro style to make a good picture book, but sadly there are far too many stories that either fall flat or cover well-trod territory. This is where more robust criticism comes in, and perhaps the challenge from editors to push for a more honest ending.

Finally, in the section “We Condemn” is this nugget.

The amnesiacs who treasure unruly classics while praising the bland today.

Well, now, just exactly who and what are we talking about here? To be an amnesiac is to forget, perhaps through no fault of their own. Treasuring a classic I get, but what constitutes and “unruly” classic, especially when it comes to picture books? This would suggest long and wordy picture books – the dread “picture story book” which many claim do not exist – and a certain blind fealty to said classics. Okay, I guess I can put that picture together in my head. But to have these same amnesiacs praising bland books today, I’m not sure I see how the two are connected. Are they suggesting that those who treasure unruly classics are a likely and large enough constituency that they also uniformly praise bland contemporary titles? If anything this reads like an insider jab at particular and pointed professionals in the industry, whether they be above-reproach Caldecott skaters or entrenched editorial professionals, or perhaps a winking broadside aimed at the last of the old guard, the Barbars and Madelines and Ferdinands and the occasional old man with Caps for Sale. Without definitions I find this condemnation to be the weakest element of the manifesto.

All in all, I find this sort of self-examination refreshing. I don’t know that a group of middle grade or young adult authors could pull off the same feat – in fact I think it might be the sort of thing that would divide any movement into camps faster than zombies and unicorns, or yeti and bigfoot, or whatever the mode of the day may be. Perhaps what this proclamation truly needs is a name for its self-identified group, something that can be both a form of marketing and a way of monitoring those who follow these tenants. They want to be held accountable, then they should identify themselves accordingly so that we can hold their feet to the fire.

Otherwise its all just words words words. We need pictures to make this revolution stick! Show us what you got, you undersigned, you.

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The other day I was talking to my teen girls, I don’t remember about what exactly, but I casually mentioned that something-or-other had come to be expected now that we’re living in another depression.

“It’s a recession, dad, not a depression,” one was quick to correct.

But it’s not a recession, I told them, it’s a depression we’re living in. They looked at me, shocked. A recession, well, that’s something the nation recovers from over time, eventually. But a depression? That’s serious. They study the Depression in school and things were really bad then. So if just saying that is enough to cause them to rethink their world then perhaps we need to change the message. Perhaps we need to look around and see that we really are living in a depression.

Of course, we’d know this if we weren’t so constantly distracted by technology and entertainment to see it. Would you like to prove this to yourself? Put down your smart phones and laptops for a month, turn off the TV and go to an actual sporting event or movie in a theatre, use public transit or walk everywhere you need to go no matter the weather, read only newspapers for information, and pay for everything that week using only cash. Doing this, putting yourself physically back into the world, you’ll start to see more of what’s around you. It’ll look damn depressing.

With this idea of my girls thinking we are only in a recession (call it deep, call it double dip, whatever) and not a depression I began to wonder if our well-honed ability to distract ourselves has prevented us from truly being able to have an effective protest. I was thinking this last night while I was making dinner and listening to the radio when a story came on featuring a profile of an article in the Sunday New York Times about how the Occupy Wall Street protests were creating a sort of public architecture. The Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman had enthusiastically embraced the movement’s occupation of a public/private space as a reinvention of a democratically formed community, with its own organically borne standards and definitions of that space. Kimmelman’s article boldly skips along drawing comparisons with Vietnam protests taking over Central Park in the 60s, Bejing and Berlin in ’89, the democracy movement in Cairo, all as a through-line to the Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccoti Park.

It’s an interesting idea on the face of it but the tone of both the article and the radio interview struck me as just being a little too brightly off-key, like a child singing too loud to compensate for their fear of forgetting the lyrics. The lyrics in this case are the echoes of the Great Depression, and the exuberance of all this communal democracy drowns out the reality that the Occupy Wall Street movement is the modern manifestation of the Hoovervilles of the Depression, not some bold political wind of change.

Replace the displaced dust-bowl farmers and displaced factory workers with un- and under-employed Americans who have been convinced to amass bad debt and accept lower wages and these Occupy Wall Street communities look like nothing less than the shanty villages that sprung up during the Hoover administration before “too big to fail” became a viable means to keep financial solutions alive. It pains me to think of these protest encampments springing up across the country under Obama’s watch because I fully believe he inherited these problems and doesn’t have what is necessary to fix or change things. I think the movement may turn out to be a true political zeitgeist with the ability to shift the direction the country takes, but perhaps not in the ways we imagined.

The only positive hope I can hold onto through this repeat of history is that as these Obamopoleis continue to spring up and take root that eventually the government can and will deliver the necessary reforms and programs that place us at the cusp of an FDR-like change in civic and civil responsibility. I’d like my girls to see a country that stopped yelling at one another long enough to build something good. I’d like for them to witness what it means when people work together to ensure that everyone gets the same chances, that there is more life than playing video games on a touch screen, or believing that if enough people repeat the same fiction about living in a recession then surely things aren’t so bad that they need to worry about them.

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I don’t understand what the hell is happening with Occupy Wall Street and that’s the problem because I doesn’t feel like they do either. Here’s a conversation I had yesterday to illustrate the problem:

ME: Have you been following what’s been happening with this protest in New York?
SO: What protest?
ME: It’s apparently picking up in other cities as well.
SO: What’s it about?
ME: They even have a sort of statement of purpose on the Internet.
SO: What for?
ME: Yeah, I couldn’t really tell you.

For a protest to be going on its third week you would think that I could clearly articulate what it was about, what the aims and goals were, but the whole thing feels like a crappy telecine rerun of protests from the last 40 years.

Which means it looks like a blip on the history of populist dissatisfaction, not even worthy of a footnote.

I have caught the videos of police abuse at the protests, and seen flyers locally for support rallies, and read blog posts suggesting this is the American Fall of the Arab Spring, and even suggestions that this is the beginning of a third major political party that will go underground in the winter like a tulip bulb and emerge in full bloom come the spring. And I’m reminded of the great nearly-annual student protests over fee hikes that takes place at UC Berkeley. Perhaps you remember them?

No? I’m not surprised.

I moved to Berkeley in 1980 and lived in the vicinity of the UC campus for over 20 years and almost as sure as you can find drunk frat boys at Top Dog after midnight on Saturdays, protests are a way of life in the birthplace of Free Speech. When you’re 18 and on your own for the first time these protests are exciting, intoxicating, invigorating. I remember the day after the elections there was a near-spontaneous protest march over Reagan becoming president. Flyers all over implored people to meet at the BART station for a traditional march through the streets — down Shattuck, up Dwight and past Barrington hall, around People’s Park, up Telegraph, and onto the campus itself — shouting this anger and disapproval over the election of California’s former Governor, the man who once ordered the National Guard to fire tear gas, rubber bullets, and live rounds on the citizens of these very same streets! Hundreds of people, not just college kids, marching through the streets shouting in unison as if practiced: “The People, united, shall never be defeated!” Yes! I remember thinking, this is what it means to not sit at home and grouse but to actually get out and do something about your dissatisfaction.

Ah, how little I knew back then.

Caught up in the moment, I was quick to overlook the protestors marching with signs about women’s rights, about abolishing the death penalty, No Nukes! and Free Leonard Peltier! All these voices of dissent, united as one against a president who stood for all that was against the will of the people, united. Yes, it made perfect sense then. Over time, as the Reagan era took flight, as federal funding cuts closed mental institutions, as we went to war in Granada, as we sent CIA operatives into Central America to train “freedom fighters” the protests came with increased frequency. The people took to the streets, the speakers stood on the steps where Mario Savio once stood and made proclamations, and all around the same people, the same signs. Boycott Apartheid! ROTC Off Campus! Gay Rights! Tania Lives! The people united in voice, yes, but not in ideals.

In the spring, as the flowers bloomed, so did the annual increase in student registration fees for the coming year and the inevitable protests that followed. Students occupied Sproul Hall, they occupied California Hall. They shouted through bullhorns and they hung sheets with their banner’s of protest spray-painted on them from the windows. They demanded change. They got arrested and the occasional platitude from the Regents. The school year ended, the students blew home like dandelion spores, the fall came and everything was status quo.

The reason the student protests didn’t work was because a show of numbers and shouted demands don’t have any effect on those in power. The Regents knew that if they sat it out long enough the students would leave campus and the school year would begin with a whole new batch of Freshmen who knew nothing of the protests and wouldn’t balk at paying higher fees. And ultimately the Regents of the University of California didn’t care because (a) they already had the student’s money and (b) if the students didn’t pay up they wouldn’t get their grades. The problem was that the protest didn’t actually hurt the University in the spot it would make the most impact: their bank account. The hiatus between semesters and during the summer made it difficult for the movement to maintain its momentum. And, as always, the protests drew on a contingent of perpetual protestors who would move in on any public protest in an attempt to gain recognition for their cause by piggybacking onto the cause of the moment.

Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Whadda you got?

So what’s changed between 1953 when Marlon Brando tossed out that line of rebellion and 2011 as people in NYC are getting arrested for occupying a bridge with their protest? It’s hard to say. I get that there is a deep anger and dissatisfaction about Wall Street and banks continuing to profit while the rest of the country goes through an economic depression. The problem for me isn’t that people are angry enough to protest, it’s imagining that a show of force in the streets is going to translate into meaningful change. I would love to know of an example in modern times where this level of public protest was met by change from those at whom the protest was directed. How many years of anti-war protest in the late 60s and 70s before America pulled out of Vietnam, and wasn’t the larger public more mobilized against the war by Walter Cronkite’s criticism than the collected voices from any mass rally?

Listen, I don’t have a problem with what Occupy Wall Street’s agenda is, only its methods. They’ve amassed attention, that’s great, but their message isn’t clear to a lot of people still, so that’s a problem. And as for Wall Street and the banks, wouldn’t it be more effective to collectivize and organize a financial hit? What if…

What if there was an organized run on the banks? What if a date was chosen for everyone to go to their bank on a Friday, withdraw all but a token amount from all their accounts, say $1, and then promise to return the money to those accounts once the banks have acknowledged the public dissatisfaction and made hard (not vague) promises to change. See, pulling all that money out has a much larger effect on them than people protesting in the streets. It’s harder to do this with Wall Street – Have everyone sell off their stocks? Close out retirement accounts? – but a message sent to banks, even for a limited time like a weekend, that might make a difference. Just as the students of Berkeley might have been in a better negotiating position if they simply refused to pay their reg fees in the first place.

Starting a protest movement in the fall, one some say could blossom into a political party, is deadly. To assume that it will be reborn in the spring with renewed energy is folly. There is a limited window before East Coast weather becomes a force of demobilization, time for a movement to seriously be thinking about what it can do to be taken seriously now and in the coming months.

No arrests for wearing masks, no innocent bi-standers getting pepper sprayed, no mixed-message signs, no mass marching across bridges that has no effect on the financial fat cats the protest is aimed at. You want to hit money hard? Hit them in the wallet.

 

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When Bill Clinton’s political strategist James Carvelle came up with a set of focal points for the 1996 presidential campaign he could hardly have imagined that point number two, “the economy, stupid,” would become a snowclone that would continue to haunt every recession and depression America would face. What was initially funny for both its bluntness and simplicity now stands as ignored as a four-way-stop in a one-light town at midnight. It’s always been about the economy.

I’m home now from a vacation that had to be revised on the fly when hurricane Irene wiped out the road to our vacation rental and plunged a good portion of the eastern seaboard into power outages and other side effects of destruction. What was initially frustrating about having this same vacation plan interrupted for a third year in a row (a long story) eventually became quite a nice makeshift vacation visiting coastal cities whose financial lifeblood had been chased away only days earlier. As we traipsed down from New England to Ocean City and Virginia Beach I took some consolation that our vacation dollars were going to instantly help the local economy bounce back.

But listening to Washington politicians argue about the need for job stimulation and boosting the economy leaves a sour taste in my mouth both before and after this trip. It sat poorly with me as I left my home for a little family down time and found myself constantly confronted with the problems of the American economy at nearly every transaction and interaction.

The problem with the American economy isn’t going to get better until we look in the mirror and realize the problem with the stupid economy is our own doing.

Arriving at our hotel in Ocean City, which had only reopened 24 hours earlier following the hurricane, we were asked to be understanding as 60% of the hotel staff had been evacuated for the hurricane and many had not yet returned. In fact, some might not ever return. Not because they had been displaced by storm damage the way citizens of New Orleans had been displaced after Hurricane Katrina, but because they weren’t even Americans. In Ocean City, the first people evacuated were the foreign students who, it turns out, are the cheap, imported labor that keeps this seaside vacation spot running. When it came time to evacuate these students, working as hotel maids and boardwalk shop workers, were put on buses and trucked inland to Baltimore for their own safety and protection. It makes sense on one level that we would want to assure the safety of our foreign visitors, but that number really started to gnaw at me.

Six out of every ten. That’s a lot of people being exploited for cheap labor, a lot of local money going into the pockets of businesses (who no doubt reaped some tax credits as well as exemptions from labor laws), and a lot of jobs not filled by citizens in a deep recession.

I’m not saying this problem is widespread, though we saw quite a bit of this in Virginia City as well, but I have to question the logic that goes into complaining about the government not doing enough to stimulate the economy when there are local economies that basically are importing labor from overseas, legally, actively.

How? Through a student J-1 visa that allows students from overseas work in the US for a couple of months before allowing them to travel. And the exploitation these students receive as part of this “cultural exchange” has basically created a situation close to indentured servitude, so much so that recently some of them went on a good old-fashioned strike. Aside from helping a smattering of businesses get around hiring Americans and paying them a decent wage, how does a situation like this help the overall economy?

Indeed, how long will it be before Americans come to understand that the only way this country found its way out of previous recessions and depressions was through sacrifice and sharing the burden, all the way to the top, not just at the bottom of the economic rung?

There’s an old expression that says you have to spend money to make money. There’s no way this economy is going to build itself. Either companies are going to need to pay more in taxes or they need to spend money on hiring and paying employees a decent enough wage so they can pump that money back into the economy. This isn’t socialism, or some radical leftist dogma, it’s a simple reality.

The sooner Americans realize the problem isn’t with politicians or government or even themselves but with the top 1% that controls 40% of this nation’s wealth the sooner we can fix this stupid economy.

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